I cannot begin to explain how certain conservative evangelical churches in England are feeling right now. Victims and survivors are hurting, congregations are swirling, statements are confusing and triggering. I’m sick of the betrayal, and many of us are in different kinds of pain.
But I can tell you a story. It’s a story from my life.
I came to know Jesus when I was 14. I felt the exhilaration of that first apprehension of grace. I went on to achieve what schools call success, won awards and straight-A’s. I was offered an academic merit scholarship at the top university in the country. There I joined more Christian groups.
Then when I was twenty a church leader let me down. I didn’t fully understand what had happened. I didn’t know how to tell people. It led to a major breakdown in my mental health. The university offered me a leave of absence but during that leave of absence, I had to find a job while being unqualified, and then finish my degree while working full-time. For 2 years my food had to come from £1 a day. I worked 10 hours a day and studied at night and on Saturdays. The church leader was promoted and I was poor, depressed, and bewildered. I had lost church and friends and I was a disappointment.
I wanted Jesus to fix things, even though, like many victims, I thought a lot of it was just my fault. Where I could see it wasn’t my fault I focused on forgiving and being gracious. I worked hard and prayed. I longed for the church I’d had before this had happened. So while stumbling along, I told everyone about Jesus.
In that mess, the Lord worked miracles.
If you had been here
In the New Testament we read about Jesus and his friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Lazarus had become ill, and Jesus was told about it, but he didn’t go there and heal him. Instead he waited. And Lazarus died.
“Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.””
If you had been here. She looked to him to heal, to spare the pain. We look to him too. We believe he can do it, yet so often it seems, he doesn’t. If you had been here. Mary appealed to him based on what she knew of him – she knew he could heal, she didn’t doubt his love for them. But he hadn’t come, and then Lazarus died. If you had been here. Her question might convey a sense of betrayal, of him letting her down, but perhaps she is only talking to him as the psalmists appealed to God: you are wonderful and good, Lord, and this doesn’t make sense and I’m hurting. How could you let this happen?
Even so, she sought him. She falls at his feet.
Earlier on, before he had arrived, he had said something intriguing. “…This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Despite all appearances, what he had said before still held true. How could Mary presume – even imagine – that he would do what he was about to do? He is able to do more than we ask or think.
A more decisive victory
Jesus’ plan was for higher ends, for greater restoration, for a more decisive victory than a healing; but before this had been shown to everyone, Jesus did not withhold himself from feeling deeply within what it is to be human. He saw their weeping. It hurt him too.
And he never fails to fulfil his promises. Lazarus, come out.
There, before the eyes of everyone, a dead man lived and breathed and walked.
Often the death around and within can crowd out our sense of the power at work within us. He takes the rough ground of fallenness and causes it to bear fruit. He does it like he always has: with words. They flow through our veins, through our aching heart, down to our toes, building up, giving breath, warmth and sustenance to cold, clammy, constricted vessels. It lifts us to our feet. “Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him.”
Things right now look deathly. Jesus knows we want him to fix it. He is still the same person who wept alongside Mary. The same Jesus who threw aside social norms and engaged in a theological discussion with a lonely, outcast woman. The same Jesus who pointed out to scorning religious elite, that the loving devotion of the one whom they scorned far exceeded theirs. In holy anger he stormed the temple, throwing out the thieves, and welcoming the weakest, most ostracised in society: the blind, the lame and the children.
We come to him knowing our weaknesses and blemishes, and he renews us day by day. That is the God we put our trust in: he gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. The God who works in us with resurrective power.
We don’t always see how things can work out well, but just as Mary found, we can know that he comes alongside us in the midst of everything and feels the most gut -wrenching compassion and indignation against every evil thing that crushes us.
And we can be sure he will make it all work out wonderfully beyond what we can imagine.
Hope beyond hope
Twenty years ago in the midst of the dust, there was resurrection power at work in my friend who became a Christian. He then became my husband, who reflects the kindness and compassion of Jesus. We were taken to new communities of fellowship and in our small way we shared the gospel in Germany, Hungary and the U.K. We were not glorious missionaries. Our lives were not neatly tied up. We had no sending church, no formal prayer support, no regular visits or sabbaticals. We only had Jesus. And he continues to be faithful. Only Jesus could have given us our children, who have brought so much joy. When on the brink of poverty again, only he could have provided for us. I do feel joy and it is all a gift from him. He teaches me to be grateful. I am alive today because he wills it.
For me and many of my friends, things right now are dark again. But the darkness we face isn’t extraordinary. It is totally covered and overpowered by him. Now we we are weeping. May he lift us to our feet.
John 11:4, 32, 45
John 4:1-45, Luke 7:36-50, Matthew 21:12-17, Luke 11:37-53, Matthew 7:23